Bicycle Frame Crack: Fixable?

OK, so I’m riding my bicycle on Sunday and I’m hardly five miles into the ride when suddenly the crank goes “wonky” and starts going side-to-side, perpendicular to the bicycle frame, as I pedal. At the time, I’m thinking maybe it’s a ball-bearing or something and nurse the bicycle back home.

At the shop, however, they show me the real problem: A crack across the bottom of the down-tube and into the weld of the crank shaft. Three of the older repair guys at the shop are telling me that, since my frame is a steel alloy, it is repairable. So it seems my options are:

  1. One guy offered to weld it himself, but as a side project, since the bike shop will NOT do frame repairs because of liability issues.
  2. The other two are saying, hey just take it to a muffler shop. They weld tubes all the time. I reply, yea, and how much structural integrity does a muffler have? So they come up with the next option,
  3. There is a custom Chopper shop in town. They ought to be able to handle this, or at least tell me if it’s a good idea. But would they want to touch a bicycle?

So, any opinions on this?

Once it is welded, the frame will never be stronger than its weakest point: the weld.

If this is a bike you use on rough streets or off-road, I’d say no.
You might wanna find a new bike shop, too…

Why? Sounds like decent advice.

The nice thing about a steel frame that you don’t get from aluminum or carbon fiber is that they can “tear” without suffering instant catastrophic failure. That’s what happened to your bike.

Fixing a steel bike is not a difficult thing. It used to be done all the time when more bikes were steel. I think, however, that a typically procedure would involve replacing a whole tube. That’s made easy if your bike has lugs, basically little sleeves at the joints of the bike where the top-tube meet the seat tube, the seat tube meets the down tube, etc. See that link for a picture. That’s opposed to just welding the tubes together as a modern aluminum bike would do.

Some bike shop guys have experience with it, and so I’d take the guy up on his offer if he has experience. Too bad the shop won’t do it, but I can see where they’re coming from.

That custom chopper option sounds ALL RIGHT, if they’ll do it. A motorcycle frame has a lot in common with a bike frame – hollow steel tubes.

A number of bicycle manufacturers offer lifetime guarantees on their frames. You might want to check whether yours carries such a warranty - you might be able to get a new frame without bothering about the welding.

I’d steer clear of the muffler shop. Steel bikes are generally made from heat-treatable low-alloy steels (the various Reynolds grades, and chrome-moly which is basically 4130 - crankshaft steel). Mufflers aren’t, and there are definite issues with welding low alloy steels that the muffler guys may not be aware of.

Steel bike tubes are generally brazed, not welded. The difference being, only the filler metal (brass or silver solder) melts during the operation, not the steel of the tube. Some alloys will be rather badly softened if TIG welded. Others (the “air hardening” grades) are designed to be TIG weldable.

If someone is willing to braze in a new tube for you, go for it. If they want to make a weld repair, be sure they know what they’re doing.

If its a mountain bike, put the frame in the bin and get a new one, no way worth the risk, especially given the location of the crack. If its a road bike I’d think about option 1 if the bike meant a lot to me/was any good. Agree with others questioning the wisdom of getting a non bike-welder to make the repair. If your bike shop guy knows his onions, or if there is a local frame builder who can look at it then it might be worth it.

Well, Bos, I was very leery of the advice, but this is a very well regarded bicycle shop in the Dallas area. However, just because the shop is well regarded doesn’t mean these guys necessarily know what they’re doing. For one thing, there’s no way I’m going to a muffler shop.

And JerH, yes there are, but this isn’t one of them (I checked). In fact, the manufacturer in question (GT) stopped using steel years ago. Oh yea, and it is a road bike.

And no lugs, it’s definitely welded. Or maybe brazed (as matt points out). I have no way of telling weld-vs-brazed myself.

I think I’ll take the afternoon off from work and try the chopper place first, to see if they’ll even touch this with a ten-foot pole.

Aside from that, I might check with the one guy who offered to do the job, but I’ll see if he knows about the issues regarding heat-treatable low-alloy steels (yes, it’s a Reynolds alloy) and brazing-vs-welding.

Otherwise, I may look for a bike builder who also does repairs. Unfortunately, I know there’s no one in Dallas who does this, so this option WILL be involve mailing my frame off somewhere. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

Thanks for all the opinions, guys.

No one in Dallas does this? How about these guys? Even if they don’t do repairs of bikes they don’t make, they can probably refer you to a framebuilder who will.

Dump the shop who suggested a muffler shop. They don’t deserve any business.

Also consider that the cost of the repair will include some touch up painting. Since this is IMHO, I’ll also say that I wouldn’t repair the frame unless it was a high end model that I was in love with. If it was a lower end frame, I’d toss it and buy a new frame.

I have had a frame repaired before (a rear dropout on my Masi 3V) by the Cyclesmiths in San Marcos, California. They did excellent work. But when the downtube broke (after ten years and probably 40,000 miles), I opted to not fix it and bought a new frame. And I loved that Masi.

Yo, Dag Otto, thanks for the heads up. No one seemed to know about these guys and I didn’t find them with Google (too much garbage to wade through). Looks like they’ve moved up to #1 on my list of things to do this afternoon.

Well, well, well, that was enlightening. I talked to David Cheakas, the sole proprietor and builder at Southwest Frameworks over the phone and rather than make any pronouncements over the phone he said he’d have to see the bike. This is a good sign. So I drive across town to his shop. Well, actually his garage behind his house, but let me tell you, it was a fairly impressive workshop. The guy’s been in business almost 20 years and gets most of his business from out-of-state and overseas. The guy was a blast to talk to, he really loves his work.

Oh, the bike. I told him the whole backstory and he said that the muffler shop welding idea wouldn’t have been a bad idea on the old old steel bikes from back in the day, but with alloys that’s a really bad idea. Then he looked at my bike and saw that it’s a Reynolds 853 alloy and proceded to give me the run-down on why that alloy couldn’t simply be welded. In fact, while it rides great, he said that that alloy is probably the most difficult alloy to deal with and he didn’t work with it any more.

So what about replacing the down-tube? Well, he took a good close look at the problem. It turns out the crack isn’t just on the down-tube but goes around the top of the bottom bracket to the back-tube. So all of that would have to be replaced. Add to that the unique frame geometry of the old GT road bikes and he said it would cost as much to fix it as to simply build a new frame. Ouchie. He was really apologetic about it, and said it was just too impractical to fix. I got the distinct impression that he really really hated working with that particular alloy.

He says he could build a new frame for me in 2-3 weeks, depending on backlog and squeezing in a spot. That may turn out to be a good idea.

But for now I want something to ride tonight, plus I’m curious as to the ride of the new carbon fiber bikes. So I’ve rented an old Trek 5200 for the evening to see how it goes. It’s actually a size too big for me, but I’ll take it easy just to see how it rides, since I’m not planning on buying this particular model anyway.

PS – That was a great find, Dag Otto. I owe you a beer sometime. Give me a holler if you’re headed to the Hotter’n’Hell.